It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946.
Directed by Frank Capra.
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore.
On the verge of suicide after finding out he might be bankrupt, George Bailey is visited by guardian angel Clarence on a mission to save George’s life, thereby getting his angel wings. Clarence displays to George what life would be like in his small hometown of Bedford Falls should he get his wish of wanting never to be born. George is devastated at the turmoil suffered by those he holds most dearly in his life without his influence or intervention and desperately seeks a second chance at living again, his desire to end his life replaced now with a renewed vigour and wonder at the world he previously felt so disappointed by.
Often considered the archetypal Christmas film and grouped within other Christmas classics such as White Christmas (1954), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and Home Alone (1990), It’s a Wonderful Life surprisingly deals with themes of redemption, industrialization and even suicide. The dark side of this film though does not detract from the end result, a world class example of the ‘feel good film’ which ensures the viewer discovers the importance and wonders of life as much as lead protagonist George Bailey does.
The film somehow infuses and incorporates the genres of fantasy, romance, drama and family into one heart warming tale, promoting community spirit while painting the continued commercialisation of small town America in a negative light. It’s a Wonderful Life was originally a flop financially, not reaching break-even point at the box office. Similarly to The Shawshank Redemption (1994), It’s a Wonderful Life garnered its now world famous reputation by its television rights being picked up relatively cheaply by an American television broadcaster, therefore enabling the company to show the film as frequently as they would like, ensuring It’s a Wonderful Life became a staple part of the celebration of Christmas for the everyday American family. This blossoming reputation quickly turned to world wide adoration and thus It’s a Wonderful Life eventually became the greatest Christmas film of all time.
Set as well as made immediately after WWII, director Frank Capra adapted Phillip Van Doren Stern’s short story “The Greatest Gift” to the screen in an attempt to promote American everyday life and alleviate the doom and gloom suffered by the public during the war. Capra had already proved himself as Hollywood’s number one feel good movie director with previous successes Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) but It’s a Wonderful Life is considered his greatest achievement. Lead actor James Stewart himself had recently returned from service in the army both as a private as well as a pilot and this was his first post war performance, five years after his last film role. The post war feeling in the US was crucial in both the production of this film which attempted to delight American filmgoers while also was a detriment to the success of It’s a Wonderful Life, audiences not wanting the darker aspects involved in the film such as suicide brought to their attention at an already difficult time.
The film has become one of the all time treasures of Hollywood cinema and is an excellent example of the superb work achieved by both Capra and Stewart throughout their careers. Stewart’s George Bailey is now considered something of an American hero, abandoning his own dreams of professional success and travelling the world for the good of his own community, fending off the financial stranglehold of tycoon Henry F. Potter played to infuriating perfection by Hollywood stalwart Lionel Barrymore. Their intense business as well as personal rivalry is the conflict which provides an ideal catalyst for the plot, climaxing in Potter stealing money from Bailey’s company, forcing him to bankruptcy and the desire to end his life.
It’s a Wonderful Life comes across as a glorious success which exemplifies everything positive about Hollywood filmmaking; the happy ending is justified within the film as a whole, and somehow avoids an argument of the film seeming too unlikely or staged. Although it may have not achieved its original goal, over the years it has emerged as a gem of American cinema as well as considered the greatest Christmas film ever. Accolades are emptied by the bucket-load towards the direction of both Capra and Stewart, and this is considered quite rightly among of the best of each of their work.